Plucked from relative obscurity, 20-year-old Ibtisam Sheikh became a fan favourite at the recently concluded Pakistan Super League. Although he had been successful at the inter-district Under 19 level, he had only played 2 first-class games and just one List A match before making his PSL appearance for Peshawar Zalmi where he picked up 5 wickets in 4 matches, including a memorable haul of 3/20 against the eventual tournament winners, Islamabad United.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Ibtisam spoke about his experience of top-level cricket in the 3rd edition of the PSL, playing under the captaincy of Darren Sammy, why he considers Shane Warne and Kumar Sangakkara as his role models and his aspirations for representing Pakistan in the future.
PakPassion.net: How did you get into cricket and progress so far, so quickly?
Ibtisam Sheikh: I started playing tape-ball cricket in a small college ground which was very close to my home in Hyderabad, Sindh. I was very fortunate to have a coach like Mama Shaukat Baloch who worked very hard with me on my skills and I joined his academy to play hard-ball cricket about six years ago. I then moved on to Under 16 cricket and was then invited to the NCA in Lahore and was also named in the reserves for Pakistan Under 17s tour of England in 2014. I was able to move onto Inter-District Under-19 cricket in 2014 where I took 41 wickets and finished as the third-highest wicket-taker. At the same level in 2015, I picked up 37 wickets and then moved onto the Inter-Regional level playing One-Day and Two-Day events where I took 13 wickets in the One-Day format. I made a few appearances at the NCA where Mushtaq Ahmed did a lot of work on my bowling and more recently, it was Saqlain Mushtaq who gave me useful advice during my stint with Peshawar Zalmi.
PakPassion.net: Why did you give up on wanting to be a fast bowler?
Ibtisam Sheikh: When I started to play tape-ball cricket, I liked to bowl fast and wanted to play as a batsman. It was only when I started to play hard-ball cricket at the academy level, that my coach Mama Shaukat Baloch advised me to start bowling leg-breaks. When I started to bowl leg-breaks, I felt really good about it as that was an art in itself and I then started to work hard to improve my skills in this style of bowling. It's been almost six years now since I started to bowl leg-spin and I can tell you I have not regretted that decision.
PakPassion.net: Have you decided to continue with your education?
Ibtisam Sheikh: Education is very important for me and I have cleared the intermediate level examinations. Of course, it’s difficult to continue to pursue full-time education as I am playing first-class cricket but the idea is for me to achieve B.Comm. level of education in the near future. I am also very proud to say that I am a Hafiz-e-Quran; this is something I completed before playing full time cricket.
PakPassion.net: As an unknown entity at that point, how did you end up playing for Peshawar Zalmi in PSL 2018?
Ibtisam Sheikh: It is quite amazing when I think back about it but the way this happened was that I was involved in first-class cricket where I was playing for Faisalabad in the Quaid-e-Azam trophy in 2017. The Peshawar Zalmi coach, Mohammad Akram had specially come over to watch me play in one of the games which we were playing in Islamabad. He watched my bowling for a 10-15-minute period and really liked my skills. He told me that I would be part of the Peshawar Zalmi squad in the 2018 edition of the tournament in the emerging player category. As one can imagine, this was like a dream come true for me. I now had the chance of playing games in a top-level tournament and with television broadcasts of these games going out to millions around the world. To add to that, I was also feeling very proud as I was the second person after Sharjeel Khan to represent my city Hyderabad in the PSL. I watched the PSL draft live on television and when my name was announced, my parents and family were overjoyed by this and even the neighbourhood joined in the celebrations that day. Those scenes of happiness are something I will remember for a long time.
PakPassion.net: What preparations did you do before the start of the PSL?
Ibtisam Sheikh: I had a lot of faith in my abilities and knew that all I had to do was to utilise the experience I had gained from my previous games as well. Of course, in the Twenty20 format I had to change my bowling style a little bit to take into account the type of hard-hitting batsmen I would encounter during the PSL. I would ask local Hyderabad batsmen in the nets to try and hit me for fours and sixes so that I could learn to bowl to prevent them from doing so. I suppose that sort of preparation came in handy when the tournament started.
PakPassion.net: The chance to play in the PSL must have been like a dream come true for you.
Ibtisam Sheikh: I had been dreaming of playing in the PSL for a long time, and that desire was reignited when I saw players who were my contemporaries playing in the tournament. I played Under 19 cricket alongside Hasan Khan and he was my captain too, so I was thinking that if Hasan can play in 2017 then why could I have not played, even though I had done so well that year at the Under 19 level. I was very disheartened, but my coach and my family persuaded me to continue moving ahead despite these setbacks. Thankfully, I did not stop my hard work and was eventually rewarded with a place in the Peshawar Zalmi squad.
PakPassion.net: How do you rate Darren Sammy as captain and what advice did he give to you during the PSL?
Ibtisam Sheikh: As a newcomer, I really wanted to impress Darren Sammy as he was our captain. I had three opportunities in training games to do this, with the first one against Quetta Gladiators, next an internal game and the last one was with Lahore Qalandars. With the grace of the Almighty, I performed well in all three games which was sufficiently impressive for me to debut in Zalmi’s first game at the PSL 2018. We all know that Darren Sammy is not an ordinary captain as he has lead his national side to 2 ICC titles in the past. What I really liked about Sammy is the way he lead the team forward with each member of the squad having the same importance as any other player. He inspired so much confidence in each of us and that was reflected in the manner we all performed in the tournament. He would run up to me after almost every ball and encourage me to perform better. What I really liked about Sammy was the way he would tell me that I am the main bowler for the team and he expected me to take wickets and win the game for Zalmi, every time I came up to bowl.
PakPassion.net: What was the feeling like to play alongside and against some of the top players in the world in the PSL?
Ibtisam Sheikh: The experience of playing in the PSL was simply incredible. Apart from playing against top-quality players, I was really happy with the way some of the world’s best players in our team behaved liked brothers with us. There was so much encouragement for new players like me from these players during nets or during game time. If I was ever hit for runs, they would all come up to me and tell me not to lose hope and give me confidence to do better which is something people could see in my performances during the tournament.
PakPassion.net: You didn't feature for Pakistan Under-19s in your career which is very strange?
Ibtisam Sheikh: I myself am not able to explain why I have not been part of the Pakistan Under 19 squads. Last year, I know that I missed out due to the age cut-off date rule. I really don’t want to delve on that too much as I know that the Almighty rewarded me for my patience in a much better way with a place in the Peshawar Zalmi squad during the PSL. Not only did I get to play games in a top-quality tournament, I also performed very well which is something I will cherish forever.
PakPassion.net: After the hype of the PSL, what's next on the agenda for you?
Ibtisam Sheikh: I look at my performance in the PSL as a great platform for a place in the Pakistan side. Unfortunately, I was not selected for the camp in Lahore for the Pakistan Test side. I am not really disheartened by this and am looking to work harder on my bowling, batting and fielding so that whichever competition I play in next, people get to know me by my name due to my performances.
PakPassion.net: Who do you consider your role models?
Ibtisam Sheikh: I have a unique selection of players who I consider my role models. In terms of bowling, I am a follower of Shane Warne and do watch his videos as many times as possible. In terms of batting abilities, Kumar Sangakkara is my favourite player. I have ambitions to become a big all-rounder and I feel that if I can combine the bowling of Shane Warne and the batting of Kumar Sangakkara, I can achieve that goal in the future.
PakPassion.net: What are your aspirations for the future?
Ibtisam Sheikh: At the moment, it is my goal to work on improving my skills and specifically to improve my fitness. I want to make sure that I give no excuse to others to deny my eventual selection for the national side so I am working on all the relevant skills. If one can do all these disciplines well then, it’s a given that one will be in the eyes of the selectors, which is my end goal.